Side-Stepping Power Struggles
“You’re Not The Boss Of Me!”
There probably isn’t a parent alive who doesn’t cringe or roll their eyes at the phrase “power struggle”. We’ve all been there – and some of us are more than just casual tourists, unfortunately. When you’ve got a kid who’s into power, even something as simple as picking a snack can become a struggle.
Power struggles all have some of the same defining elements. First of all, it takes two people to maintain a power struggle. If one person gives in or excuses themselves from the struggle, that’s it, it’s over. If there’s nothing to push against, there’s no struggle. And in a battle for power, there’s a winner and there’s a loser. The cornerstone of a power struggle is that neither participant is prepared to compromise – one person gets what they want, and the other one doesn’t. It’s not possible to have a power struggle when both people are on the same side or are in agreement.
Kids do a lot of things that get under our skins. How do we know if this is actually a power struggle? A couple of clues will tip you off. First of all, your emotional response to your child’s action will be a sense of being provoked, challenged, threatened or defeated. And when you react by fighting or giving in, your child will tend to dig in and fight even harder (or you may see defiant compliance, such as when he does what you ask but does it incorrectly, sloppily, or in another way designed to show you that you don’t get the last word). Why does it matter if it’s a power struggle per se? Because knowing or having an educated guess as to what’s driving your child’s behaviour is going to help us correctly identify a helpful course of action for you as a parent.
Here are some guidelines for diffusing power struggles and turning that need for power into a more constructive action.
Acknowledge that you can’t force her and ask for help. The big thing about a power struggle is that kids want POWER. This in itself isn’t a bad thing. So, when you can, give it to them. Instead of saying, “Get your coat on –NOW!” try, “You’re right, I can’t make you put your coat on. But would you be willing to help me?” Acknowledging our child’s power can sometimes be all it takes to diffuse a situation. Kids are generally interested in being helpful, they just like to feel that it’s their choice to do so.
Take a step back from the conflict and cool off. As parents, we often feel as though we need to strike while the iron is hot and handle problems immediately. In cases of safety, that’s absolutely the case, but in most situations, things tend to get better faster if we take a step back and cool down before we handle the task at hand. This increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome, and decreases the likelihood that we’ll end up saying or doing something that just causes our kids to dig in even deeper. When it’s possible, take some time to calm down, assess the situation, and consider your alternatives before coming back to address it.
Use family meetings. My friend Alyson Schafer, also a parent educator, has said that if she could only share one discipline tool with the parents she works with, it would be family meetings. Family meetings are excellent at diffusing power struggles. They give everyone a chance to cool down before getting really entrenched in the struggle, they provide an opportunity to apply problem solving skills to the issue and learn how to handle problems effectively, and they take the issue from being between two people, one who wins and one who loses, and turn it into a separate problem that can be addressed and handled in such a way that everyone feels good. I have information about family meetings on my web site, when you’re ready to give them a try. Once you’ve had a chance to decide on a course of action, go forward with a positive attitude and an expectation of success. If success doesn’t follow, don’t clamp down. Bring it back to the family meeting and try another approach. The one thing that kids who use power want is to feel control over their own lives – family meetings are a healthy, respectful, and effective way of doing just that, without your needs or the needs of the family as a whole getting caught in the crossfire.
It can be a challenge to not fall into a “I’ll show you who’s boss!” mentality when our buttons are pushed by our kids. But it’s not impossible; it just takes a bit of practice. The payoff is well worth it, even just in the time saved arguing and nagging!